Extensions and u-turns

January 12, 2020

Understanding the political context of Army Act amendment

Since November 28, the national political discourse has revolved around the term ‘extension’. It was brought forth to public debate when the Supreme Court of Pakistan examined the notification of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s three-year extension, and instructed the government to introduce specific legislation regarding it. Initially, both major opposition parties; Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) warned that such legislation would not be easily passed in the parliament.

PMLN secretary general, Ahsan Iqbal had warned that given the government’s hostile attitude, the legislation could encounter difficulty. PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto had demanded a new prime minister prior to the amendment.

However, the bicameral federal legislature that consists of the Senate as the upper house and the National Assembly as the lower house, has serenely approved the service chiefs’ tenure bills 2020, through a majority. Both major opposition parties, the PML-N and the PPP, joined hands with the coalition government to do so.

Two independent members of the National Assembly, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir voiced opinions against the bill. Senators belonging to Pakhtunkha Milli Awami Party (PKMAP), National Party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazal (JUI-F) and Jamat-i-Islami did not vote for the service chiefs’ tenure bills either.

Why did both major political parties in the opposition support this amendment and not create hurdle? What did the three-member committee – constituted by the government to hold talks with the opposition parties – say to convince them? What stakes were being protected by opposition parties, in return for support? How will in the global community’s perception of Pakistan change after this? It was clear that some members in major parties were not in favour of introducing such amendments, believing it to be harmful for civil supremacy. Why were they unsuccessful in convincing party leader?

Political scientist, Dr Hassan Askari Rizvi is convinced that there were some elements in opposition parties who wanted to manipulate the opportunity offered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but were unable to convince their party leadership. “These people have a misconception; that civil supremacy can be ensured by putting pressure on the armed forces and having a confrontational approach. No country in the world can safeguard civil supremacy through a quarrelsome policy towards the armed forces.”

Political analyst Mohammad Mehdi, believes that the government did not have to persuade opposition parties to vote for the amendment. Such an effort, he says was were beyond its capacity. “The effective role of our state institutions is an undeniable reality not only for internal security, but also for this region. Albeit, major political parties were interested in gaining something from this opportunity. Thus, no party was or looked interested in putting negative pressure on the armed forced – indeed rewards have already been bestowed upon them across the board.”

Dr Rizvi believes that two prime factors ensured such smooth passage for the legislation. First, that every major party has given extensions to the COAS – six army chiefs in the past have either extended their period of service upon retirement themselves, or had it extended by the incumbent government. Hence there were no serious argument amongst major opposition parties against it. Secondly, every party wants to establish goodwill with the armed forces and avoid confrontational situations.

Other analysts including Mazhar Barlas, hold the opinion that opposition parties were desperate to join hands with the establishment, and protect their own stakes. “The rebellious approach to politics, taken by PML-N over the recent years has vanished. Its leadership finally looks convinced that its defiant ways can only bring serious challenges, for it and no benefits. The PPP is also vulnerable, largely due to innumerable corruption cases against its leaders, including Asif Ali Zardari and Faryal Talpur. Accordingly, the PPP is also trying to present itself as a ‘responsible’ party ready to shake hands and make up and uninterested in a conflict with ‘the institution’.” Nevertheless, there were some parties in the Senate that neither opposed nor supported the bill. Mir Hasil Bizenjo condemned the role of the PML-N, the PPP, and the PTI in the process of approving this amendment.

The reality is that since 1970, political parties in Pakistan have been supportive of armed forces. Mehdi states, “The amendment is a move once again to let the world know that the nation stands united behind its (security) institutions.”

Pakhtunkha Milli Awami Party (PKMAP), National Awami Party (NAP), Jamiyat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) and Jamaat-i-Islami have nothing to lose in the current scenario and hold no politically important position. Hence they pretended to be the champions of civil supremacy, Barlas adds. “However, other opposition parties have considered wisely the political and security situation in the country and the region.”

Dr Rizvi believes, that the outside world is convinced of the positive and result-oriented role of the armed forces in combatting terrorism in the region, under the leadership of Gen Bajwa. “Diplomatic circles believe that the COAS would play a productive role if he stays for another term,” he says.

The author is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]

Army Act amendment: Extensions and u-turns